In your own words – Finding new planets and studying the universe: Why it matters and what it means

Written by: Stefan Kautsch

The following guest editorial was first published on NSU News on Jan. 29, 2016 and was reprinted with the permission from the Office of Public Affairs.

Imagine believing something about yourself for many years. You’re comfortable, even confident, in who you are. Then imagine one day waking up to have others tell you, “Not so fast, you may not be who you think you are.” Your whole world changes in an instant.

That’s sort of what happened to Pluto — what was once the ninth and farthest planet from our sun — when scientists re-categorized the celestial object. Now astronomers have predicted that there may be another planet beyond Pluto: the newly-named Planet Nine, which has been featured in recent news reports.

You might be wondering, “Why should I care how Pluto is categorized? How does discovering a new planet have any relevance to my daily life?”

Those are valid questions — after all, it’s our nature to ask, “Why does all of this matter?” The simple answer is that the study of our universe is, in part, the study of ourselves. It’s the oldest science; we have been gazing into the night sky and wondering about what was out there and what our place is in the world since humans came into existence. And not much has changed – just look around today, and you’ll see just how much astronomy has impacted our lives.

Do you use a GPS, either in your car or on your smartphone? How about a camera? What about your smartphone itself? All of these devices have their roots in astronomy because, without astronomy and the plethora of man-made satellites orbiting Earth, you wouldn’t be able to call your friends or relatives around the country or across the globe or get your GPS location so you can find the local pizza parlor. Many of the tools and devices we take for granted today got their start based on our thirst to study the heavens. Over the past few years, there has been a renewed emphasis placed on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

Today, we need more students to have that inquisitive fire lit inside of them so they can become tomorrow’s scientists and researchers. Imagine where we’d be without Galileo, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking or Carl Sagan, to name a few. These giants were into STEM before STEM was STEM, and the stars provided the fertile ground that helped humankind take tremendous leaps forward.

While much more must be done to determine the status of Planet Nine, the fact is we have scientists and researchers working to do exactly that. That’s what makes astronomy and scientific research so amazing; every time there’s a new discovery, it raises more questions than it provides answers.

Being explorers is what humankind is all about, and it’s what continues to fascinate us to this day. So, when you hear that Pluto has had its designation as a planet taken away or that there is a new Planet Nine out there, it may be a quick story on the evening news or a message on Twitter, but it’s really a little bit deeper than that. Science is ever-evolving, and, with each new discovery, we learn more about ourselves in the process. Planet Nine is another step in the scientific process, a process that has amazed humans for thousands of years, and with a renewed focus on STEM education, it will continue to amaze and inspire us all in the 21st century.

So welcome, Planet Nine, to human discovery, and please give our regards to our dear friend Pluto.

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